U.S. addresses fish benefits, mercury hazards

Guidelines call for limits for kids, pregnant women

March 20, 2004|By Richard Simon | Richard Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The federal government warned yesterday that pregnant women and young children should limit their intake of tuna and other types of seafood because the mercury content can harm developing nervous systems.

But the advisory by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency also said tuna offers health benefits that should not be ignored.

That led to a political food fight, with consumer and environmental groups saying the advisory didn't go far enough, and a tuna industry official accusing critics of trying to scare people away from a food that is low in fat at a time when America faces an obesity epidemic.

A member of an FDA advisory group resigned in protest, saying the agency should have discouraged more strongly the consumption of albacore tuna by pregnant women.

The debate underscored a dilemma facing Washington: How to guide Americans to eat food that offers health benefits and is important to the U.S. economy but also can cause harm to the nervous systems of fetuses and young children.

"This message has to be a balance between the nutritional benefits of fish and the potential risks from exposure to mercury in fish," said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer of the FDA's center for food safety and applied nutrition. "That's where it gets difficult. Because you have to strike this balance."

Most people can and should eat fish frequently because of its high protein content and other nutrients, the federal advisory said. But women who are pregnant, nursing or might become pregnant should, "as a matter of prudence," limit their consumption of fish likely to contain mercury to 12 ounces - two average meals - a week.

The consumer guidelines listed canned light tuna, shrimp, salmon, pollock and catfish as varieties that should be eaten in the restricted quantities.

The same group of women, the advisory said, should consume no more than six ounces a week of albacore or white tuna, which has more mercury than canned light tuna.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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